RUSSIA'S relationship with the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Estonia has worsened dramatically after both Baltic countries accused Moscow of making it impossible to conclude treaties on withdrawing its troops from within their borders.
The latest round of Estonian-Russian talks ended in failure Wednesday, with Estonian officials blaming Russia for reneging on an Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops left over from the Soviet era.
The situation was further complicated by a decree issued Wednesday by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to create 30 permanent military bases on former Soviet territory outside Russia - including Latvia. That brought angry condemnations from Latvian officials.
Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Birkvas told Latvian radio that the decree violated international law and would invalidate agreements for Russian troop withdrawal. But yesterday, Russia backtracked by saying Latvia's inclusion among the proposed sites for bases was a ``technical mistake.''
``The issue of deploying any Russian bases on the territory of Latvia was not raised and does not exist,'' Russian presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov said in a statement.
Gen. Mikhail Kolesnikov, chief of Russia's general staff, was quoted on Wednesday by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying the decree envisaged fashioning the bases from existing facilities, such as the Skrunda radar installation in Latvia. Last month, Russia and Latvia agreed that Russia would pull its 12,000 troops out by August 31 in return for Russia's renting the Skrunda station from Latvia for five-and-a-half years.
The recent turn of events further complicates Russia's already-difficult relations with Estonia and Latvia, which along with Lithuania were annexed into the Soviet Union in 1940 by dictator Joseph Stalin. An estimated 130,000 former Red Army troops have been withdrawn from the Baltics since they won their independence from Moscow in 1991, but only Lithuania remains completely free of Russian soldiers.
Wednesday's decree, which still mandates that Russia set up bases in other neighboring former Soviet republics, reflects Russia's desire to expand its influence among neighboring states in the ``near abroad,'' or former Soviet Union. It also is indicative of Russia's new assertive and more hard-line foreign policy, which Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev this week admitted was connected to the strong showing of Communists and nationalists in December's parliamentary elections.
Russia's stance ``suggests that Russia has hardened its position,'' the Baltic News Service quoted the Estonian Foreign Ministry as saying in an official statement. Russia's ``manner and tone had sounded like an ultimatum,'' it said.
Juri Kahn, Estonia's ambassador to Moscow, said Russia had stalled the talks by demanding that Estonia grant residency permits to the more than 10,000 Russian military pensioners living on Estonian territory. He said the pensioners posed a threat to Estonia's national security as many are young, had worked for the KGB or military intelligence, and still possessed their military weapons.
``Of course, it is impossible to grant permits to these groups of people,'' Kahn told the Monitor. ``This means Russia is trying to keep its troops in Estonia by insisting on conditions that are completely unacceptable from the Estonian point of view.''
But Vasily Svirin, chief negotiator for the Russian side, told Baltfax that Russia will consider the Aug. 31 deadline ``no longer relevant'' unless Estonia agrees to its demands. ``For Russia, it is very sad that the Estonian side doesn't want to normalize these issues,'' Mr. Svirin told a news conference.
Russia has also demanded that Latvia grant residency permits to its former Red Army residents.
``We cannot grant Latvian citizenship to officers of a foreign army, that is, people who are potentially disloyal to our state,'' Alexander Kirshteins, head of the Latvian Independent Movement parliamentary faction, told the newspaper Sevodnya. ``There are potentially 50,000 of them, and they are not harmless sheep.''
The West has implicitly accepted Russia's claims to be the preeminent mediator in the Transcaucasus and former Soviet Central Asia, where Moscow's troops are acting as ``peacekeepers'' in that region's various ethnic conflicts.
But any attempt by Moscow to assert its military presence in the Baltic states, whose annexation by the Soviet Union was never internationally recognized, would bring swift and sure international condemnation.
Russia's stance on the troop withdrawal issue has already incurred international criticism. Swedish Foreign Minister Margaretha af Ugglas said Wednesday during a visit to St. Petersburg that Aug. 31 should be the final date for the troop withdrawal.
The presence of Russian troops in the Baltics is one obstacle to its membership in the Council of Europe, members of the cultural and human rights organization said at a Tuesday meeting in Helsinki, according to Reuters.